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Davis, California

Monday, June 10, 2024

Paws up for fish skins


Innovative use of tilapia skin helps heal wildlife with burned paws

Two female bears and a mountain lion cub were treated for severe burns on their paws after the Sonoma wildfire late last year with a new type of bandage — fish skins. The collaboration between a senior wildlife veterinarian at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and a companion veterinarian at UC Davis to heal these large carnivores started with a housecat.

Dr. Deana Clifford, the senior veterinarian at CDFW, had a cat named Craftsy, whose fractured leg did not heal properly. After looking at different options, Clifford went to Dr. Jamie Peyton, who practices integrative medicine. Clifford combines current medical practices with traditional ones, such as acupuncture.

“I’d been taking care of [Clifford’s] cat for the last year, and she was the one that talked to me and asked me if I would be interested in helping them with any pain or burn issues because I have an interest in wounds and wound healing — and I said of course,” Peyton said. “It just so happened that after we talked about that, a few weeks later they had a bear sent up for burns.”

Kirsten Macintyre, a communications manager with the CDFW, said the department mostly deals with orphaned animals or injured wildlife that does not have to be taken to a rehabilitation center.

“There are cases, like when a deer was tangled in a soccer net,” Macintryre said. “Burns are unusual. The last case was nine years ago.”

Injured wildlife is assessed by the department, and if the animals are in too much pain, they are euthanized. The three big carnivores were not the only victims of the fire, but the small animals that could be saved were sent to rehabilitation centers. However, most places for wildlife are not equipped to handle such large animals. Only a week after a bear was brought in, another bear and the mountain lion cub came in with similar injuries.

“Wildlife is a little different than treating a dog or a cat because you can’t hold them like a dog or a cat, actually to do anything with you them you have to anesthetized them,” Peyton said. “The other thing is that you can’t bandage their feet like you would [with a dog or a cat], because if they eat it, it’s a problem and if they tear it off, you can’t go into their pen and easily get it out. We had to figure it out, using traditional methods of burn care. So the creams that we use for pain control, cleaning the wounds, and then add other things.”

Peyton uses cold laser therapy, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic techniques in her work. Cold laser therapy and PEMF use infrared light or a magnetic current to help increase blood flow to injured areas to promote healing. Acupuncture and chiropractic therapy is used to help with pain management and boost the immune system. This still was not enough.

“After we started those things, we’d be watching her [the bear] and she still didn’t want to walk, because we can’t get her to take pain medication when we wanted to, and I thought we need to do something else,” Peyton said. “And that’s where the fish skin idea came in. I remembered seeing something about using fish skins to help people with burns down in Brazil. So we actually called down to Brazil […] and they said they’ve seen some really good results, but they couldn’t ship us any of the skins. So I thought to myself, well, I’m just going to make them myself, because this bear needed something. Life puts you in situations where you have to make a decision, you have to do something, because that animal needs more help than you are currently giving them.”

After getting tilapia from the local fish market, the team sterilized the skin and sutured it on the healthy skin still left on the paws. The process to make the fish skin bandage took several days, and by the time it was ready to use, it did not smell, and the animals were not able recognize the bandages were made of potential food. On both of the bears, the skins were further wrapped in rice paper and corn husks so the fish skin could not be easily taken off.

Clifford had predicted that the three animals would take three to four months to heal, but they were doing well only about a month and half later.

“Often we have to innovate, try new things with wildlife,” Clifford said. “Anything to improve their chances of getting back into the wild.”

The fish skins protected the damaged tissue, offered pain relief and helped the burned paws heal. Many scientists are excited about the possibility of expanding the use of fish skins, and Peyton wants to start clinical trials after the paper on their recent use is published. Peyton believes fish skin could help with chronic non-healing wounds and pressure sores in addition to burns.

“This holds a lot of promise,” Clifford said. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries from other rehabilitation centers.”

On Jan. 8, both bears were released after the researchers made them dens to keep the bears safe. Since they were tagged with GPS collars, the CDFW has been able to confirm that both bears are doing fine, although they have moved away from the human-made dens. One of the bears was pregnant when she was brought in, and those monitoring her are unable to tell if she has given birth.

The mountain lion cub, named Charlie, was moved to the Sonoma Wildlife Rescue Center, where he will be joining a female mountain lion who just lost her companion. Charlie is too young to be released; mountain lion cubs typically stay with their mothers for 18 months and Charlie was only 5 months old when he was brought in during December.

“I’ve been asked, why spend the money and time on this?” Macintyre said. “Peyton volunteered her time, as did two other doctors. They collected a body of knowledge and it has a  wide range of applications. It had never been done before, and I’m really excited about this.”


Written by: Rachel Paul — science@theaggie.org


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